I recently finished reading Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War by Ted Morgan. Morgan comprehensively examines the Battle of Dien Bien Phu from the fighting in the trenches to the diplomatic discussions (both public and private) at the Geneva Conference to bring the Indochina War to an end.
As many people know, the Indochina War led to direct American involvement in South Vietnam in the Vietnam War. Many people may not know how involved the United States was in the Indochina War – toward the end of the war the U.S. was paying for more than 80% of French war expenses. In addition, during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the CIA contracted with the French government to allow CIA pilots to fly resupply missions for the besieged French. The U.S. also had some advisers stationed in Saigon and Hanoi. Morgan adroitly points out that President Eisenhower was willing to assist the French in defeating the Vietminh up to a point – he was not willing to send in U.S. military aircraft or ground troops unless they were part of an international force.
Morgan’s writing on the diplomatic talks leading up to and including the Geneva Conference is probably the strongest part of the book. He explains how Eisenhower walked a tight rope of trying to keep the French fighting to stop the Vietminh and not committing American troops to the fighting. Although Morgan does not totally dissect Eisenhower’s decision making, he does give the reader a pretty good idea of how and why the Eisenhower administration made their decisions regarding the war.
Speaking of decision making, Morgan also delves into how French General Navarre came to the decision to commit some of his best troops in a valley in the outback of Vietnam – Navarre wanted to block Vietminh efforts to invade Laos and he never thought that the Vietminh would be able to bring enough artillery to the hills surrounding Dien Bien Phu to destroy the French base. Morgan provides the various reasons why this assumption was way off – one of which was that Navarre had contempt for the Vietminh’s mobilization efforts of the peasants to supply their forces.
Morgan thoroughly discusses the international diplomacy between France, Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and China to bring peace in Indochina at the Geneva Conference. Morgan explores the relationship among the participants at the Conference – particularly between the British, French ,and Americans. He explains how the British under Foreign Secretary Eden tried to make deals with the Soviets and the Chinese in order to find a way out of Indochina for France – Eden did this despite the efforts of the Americans led by Secretary of State Dulles to torpedo these plans. It sometimes makes the reader wonder who the British were allies to – the Americans or the Communists.
Although Morgan does an excellent job of describing the diplomatic events surrounding Dien Bien Phu, he does not extensively describe the military operations. I was expecting more narrative on the tactics used by General Giap to attack the French strong points and the French attempts to counter his efforts, but Morgan only highlighted in a few paragraphs the fall of each strong point that protected the central command of the base. Morgan could have balanced the book more by trimming the diplomatic discussions and expounding on the military operations.
Morgan writes in a style that is easy to read. He explains who the major personalities (both military and political) were from all the countries involved in the war. These explanations help the reader to better understand why the different sides acted the way they did.
One final thought, Morgan could have organized the book in a better manner. He switches too much between the diplomatic scene and the battle. The chapters should have separated the two areas – I understand this approach may have brought some confusion with regard to the timing of the events, but I think that would have been worth the risk because the way he organized the book chops up the events – there is not much congruity in the writing.
This book is a good choice for someone who wants a general idea of how Dien Bien Phu was lost on the battlefield and at the negotiating table.